NEW HAVEN — A startup launched by a couple of Yale grads is quietly making a name for itself in the fast-growing business of premium organic work clothing made in the USA. A couple of Yale grads are finding success with a $145 work shirt made in the USA from organic cotton.
by Sujata Srinivasan
Making Great Clothing That’s Also Organic and Made In The USA
NEW HAVEN — A startup launched by a couple of Yale grads is quietly making a name for itself in the fast-growing business of premium organic work clothing made in the USA.
“You had Patagonia for the weekend but nothing if you needed a suit to wear to work,” said Amanda Rinderle, who along with her husband Jonas Clark began Tuckerman & Co. from a start-up incubator at Yale last year.
“Everything’s fast fashion, so it’s not made to last. We looked into it and realized that there was a huge environmental problem, particularly for cotton. It’s one of the most chemically-intensive crops in the world,” said Rinderle.
Rinderle, 30, and Clark, 34, are tapping into a growing consumer class driven to make purchases that are in line with both fashion and personal values. The couple – who met in Cambridge, Mass., before moving to Connecticut to attend Yale – began their entrepreneurial venture because they were frustrated at not being able to find ethically sourced, high-quality work clothing that was made to last.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton covers just 2.4 percent of the world’s crop land but accounts for 24 percent of the global sales of insecticide and 11 percent of pesticides sales.
“We’re outdoorsy people and have been big fans of Patagonia and their approach to their supply chain,” said Clark. “They switched to organic cotton long before it became cool. We thought – ‘gosh, where’s a Patagonia for the office?’ That kind of got us off and running.”
As luck would have it, Patagonia’s Chief Storyteller Vincent Stanley was giving a talk at the Yale School of Management where Rinderle and Clark, then students, cornered him with the pitch for Tuckerman & Co., named after their favorite hiking trail in New Hampshire.
Stanley not only liked the idea, he got onboard as an advisor. “I was encouraged by the impeccable quality of the final product,” he said.
The men’s dress shirts – single line stitching, raised hems, buttons from tree nuts in Panama, interfacing stitched in to avoid chemicals – are made from organic cotton grown in Israel and woven in Italy by suppliers who hold the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) certification. The material is cut and sewn at a factory in Fall River, Mass., where workers are second and third generation unionized shirt-makers with healthcare coverage, earning an average hourly pay of $12. The company has no employees besides Rinderle and Clark.
Launched in New Haven from a start-up incubator at Yale last year, Tuckerman has raised close to $100,000 in grants, including $30,267 from 255 donors on Kickstarter in 2014, when the duo was in their second year. Clark said the online start-up quickly became profitable but he declined to divulge revenue. The company is test-marketing a line of women’s shirts.
“Most people who are paying $100 for a shirt at a retailer – that shirt cost $25 to make,” said Clark. “Because we are direct to consumer, we cut out some of those mark-ups along the way.”‘
Tuckerman’s dress shirt is priced at $145. Brooks Brothers non-organic cotton Herringbone French Cuff dress shirt, for example, woven in Italy, is priced at $325.
“The concern about the environment is spreading. However, when the price is high, such concerns matter less,” said Narasimhan Srinivasan, professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut. “But obviously Tuckerman is catering to an upscale market. It’s economically viable.”
For artisanal clothing makers, a small group of loyal customers is all it takes to sustain sales. “The market segment for longer lasting versus cheap throw-away clothes is growing,” said Anne MacDonald, former chief marketing officer at Macy’s and an advisor to Tuckerman. “The shopper who buys only on discount and in price promotion department stores such as Macy’s and H&M is not the primary customer Tuckerman is targeting.”
Tuckerman sees its core customers as consumers willing to spend on brands that value people and the planet. These consumers choose to support retailers who help build sustainable supplier communities abroad and the buy local movement at home. Nearly 20 percent of Tuckerman’s sales are accrued in Connecticut as buyers spend dollars in support of local craftspeople and retailers.
Demand for Made in USA wedding gowns is driving sales at Modern Trousseau in Woodbridge, which sells across the U.S. and also in the U.K. and Japan at an average wholesale price of around $1,800 per gown. In Ridgefield, Fox-Rich Textiles Inc., a fabric converter, supplies material for hunting and theatrical accessories.
At the Hartford Denim Company LLC, launched in 2010, Dave Marcoux, 32, co-founder, said sales continues to grow locally. Priced at $235 each, the jeans are made in Hartford on antique sewing machines and a Connecticut logo goes on every pair sold in the U.S., Sweden and Japan. The thread is sourced from New Bedford, Mass., and the denim from North Carolina. “We want to support the domestic economy as well as avoid child labor,” said Marcoux.
The demand for small online stores selling handcrafted work including clothing has spurred the phenomenal success of marketplaces like Etsy, which has 24 million active buyers and gross merchandise sales of $2.39 billion in 2015.
“Young entrepreneurs are bringing back a fashion-forward spirit in America,” said Jacob Harrison Long, CEO of the American Woolen Company, which manufacturers fabric for J. Crew and Jos. A Banks in Stafford Springs. In the last 18 months, his firm has aligned with 22 garment start-ups. “We’re tapping into a new Made in America phenomenon brought on by online apparel start-ups. Five years ago they were making nothing. Now they’re doing upward of $20 million in revenue.”
Much of that growth rests on support from a small but fierce band of loyalists who buy well, buy less, and derive satisfaction from an aesthetic wardrobe that’s gentle on the planet.
Tuckerman & Co. does not advertise online and relies on word-of-mouth and repeat customers. Reorder rates are more than 60 percent and the startup ranks high on Internet searches for men’s dress shirts alongside small artisanal companies such as Rawganique and Solne in the U.S. and Culturata in Canada. Clark views Brooks Brothers as the closest competitor, despite the disparity in pricing
“The purpose of Tuckerman is to make great clothing but to do it in a way that does right by those involved,” said Rinderle. “For us, that means working with partners who use fair labor practices and safe working conditions. It’s a real point of pride for us to make our shirts here.”